Raymond Oates recently shipped a truckload of wheat straw to Kentucky for $120/ton f.o.b. at his Waldron, MI, farm. Another load, delivered to an in-state poultry operation, brought even more.

But Oates doesn't have much more straw to sell. In his area, as in much of the country, it's a scarce commodity. Straw still is plentiful and relatively cheap in the West, but supplies are low and prices high in many places farther east. In some cases, buyers are paying as much for straw as for high-quality alfalfa hay — if they can find it.

The shortage is exacerbated by the fact that most straw users still want small bales, and a small straw bale typically weighs only about 40 lbs. Long-distance shipping is costly, so straw doesn't move as freely to deficit areas as does hay.

“It's so scarce because of the shipping problem,” says Oates.

Growing demand is another reason. Straw has a number of uses other than livestock and poultry bedding, and some of those uses consume large quantities. Suburbanites use it to mulch their gardens and newly seeded lawns, for example. Straw is also the favored material for controlling erosion at road construction sites.

The amount of straw available for these and other uses is dwindling. Small grain acreages have dropped in recent years, mostly due to low grain prices. Moreover, much of the straw remaining from small grain harvests is left in the field to decompose. Grain producers don't want to bother with it, or say it's worth more as fertilizer than what they can get by selling it.

That's the case around Salisbury, NC, where Darrell Nichols is a commercial grower. In his heavily populated area, garden centers are charging $4 per 40-lb bale. But farmers only get $2.50 tops.

“It's hard to get straw because most people aren't baling it anymore,” says Nichols. “With fertilizer worth $220 a ton out here, it's worth more to put the stover back on the ground.”

The situation is similar in Illinois, where farmers are getting $1.75-2.25/bale while the retail price is about $3/bale. That's according to Jerry Millburg, a market news reporter for USDA and the Illinois Department of Agriculture.

“Straw supplies are really low, and a lot of our guys didn't find it convenient to bale straw again last year,” he says. “That's mainly why straw prices are hanging in there.”

He says farmers who doublecrop wheat and soybeans have a short period to bale the wheat straw before planting beans. Big bales are starting to catch on, but most of the demand is for small bales, which are labor-intensive.

“It's hard to find the labor to put them up in that crucial time,” says Millburg. “Most guys don't think it's worth the effort.”

USDA predicts that small grain production will drop again this year. Winter wheat acreage is down significantly throughout the Corn Belt and much of the Southeast. Does that mean there will be opportunities for more farmers to plant spring-seeded grain crops and make money on both the grain and the straw?

“I think people ought to be looking at it,” answers Dave Petritz, Purdue University ag economist. “Oats are a possibility. If you can grow good-quality oats, there's a good market for both horse and sow feed. Then if you sell the straw you'll probably triple your income.”

Jeff Burbrink, extension agent in northern Indiana's Elkhart County, is less enthusiastic. He points out that wheat straw usually is worth more than oat straw. But wheat prices are low, and disease problems cut into Midwestern yields. So there's little incentive to grow wheat except for the straw. The crop does, however, give livestock producers a place to spread manure in midsummer.

“There probably are a few opportunities to make a little bit of money with straw, particularly if it's clean,” says Burbrink. “That's very important. People worry about straw having weed seeds, etc., in it. The cleaner it is, the better price you can get for it.”

Bale weight is another key, says Michigan's Oates, who bales his own straw and straw bought in the field from other farmers. He can get 16 tons on a truckload, thanks to his Freeman balers, which pack 60 lbs in each small bale.

That's why he's able to get top dollar from buyers as far away as Kentucky.

“If I had the straw, I could be shipping it to New York, too, starting at $120/ton,” says Oates.